Within the shroud of cobalt midnight a single beacon gleamed, its light formed a bubble around a crouched figure. With his shoulders wrapped in a quilt, Ethan huddled inside the shining shield and drew his book closer. But his mind absorbed none of the words that his eyes scanned. Every bit of focus drew to the echoes of crickets chirping and frogs croaking and cars revving down the street and leaves rustling in the wind. Among all of these noises he perked his ears in hopes that even the faintest high-pitched note from the whistle would ripple across the stars. But no such sound rang, and he tossed the book aside with a sigh, abandoning any hopes of being a productive student.
Ethan recalled what he told Lilli about the whistle, how it should only be used in case of emergencies and it would drive away danger. Although he sincerely meant this warning, he hoped that she would never have to use it. Lilli would only be in such danger if a pack of carnivores cornered her, or a river dragged her beneath its freezing darkness. Besides that, he knew she would refuse to use the whistle simply because it was a memento of him. Despite these cautionary pangs in his chest, above all else, he constantly reminded himself that she could take care of herself. After all, she did just that long before he even knew she existed.
A gentle night breeze blew through Ethan's quilt, forcing him to smother his now shivering body. Soon enough, his sister would be getting off work and heading home. But he still had a few extra minutes to spare.
All of a sudden, Ethan shot up as a high-pitched note rang in his ears. Muffled as it was, there was no mistaking the tweet for anything other than a whistle's cry. He threw the quilt off his shoulders and aimed the flashlight into the murky depths of the forest. The golden beam scoured the floor for any sign of movement, but nothing caught its gaze. A dull ache set into his stomach as time passed in silence.
With his last bit of hope, he shouted into the unknown: "Lilli!" His voice rang for seconds.
Please, I just need to hear it one more time.
Just as the words left his lips, another tweet echoed into the night and without a second's worth of waiting, he pursued it. Ethan stomped through the bushes and jumped over logs while the flashlight danced through the foliage.
"Lilli! Lilli!" He called her name over and over as a signal of his own. As his yells traveled deeper, several more whistles sounded, each louder than the last. The figure of a large cedar grew before him as he ran. The moment he broke through the bushes into the tree's boundaries, his light caught two tiny figures collapsed on the ground. Ethan swung the flashlight back until it illuminated a cowering figure. He recognized the whistle that now lay on its side, but the form crouched next to it was not who he expected to see.
"Lilli?" Ethan's voice came out as more of a concern than a question, but he was immediately answered when a familiar pair of green eyes peered up at him through the whiteness. However, he only recognized that part of the tiny girl. Her dress was dirty and torn in several places, fresh cuts decorated her skin, and her once waist-length hair was now grazed her jawline. Lilli's breath came out in gasps, which grew heavier as their gaze stay locked until her voice poured out.
"Ethan, please help! Poppy, she's...she's..." her voice was choked by sobs as she turned to stare at something outside of the ring of light with glimmering eyes. When Ethan moved the light in the direction of her stare, he gasped at the discovery. Poppy now lay in his field of vision, but she also changed from the creature from his memories. Underneath her now tattered fur, her body was littered with even more cuts than Lilli's. Red patched stained her form. Ethan stepped toward the still creature, crouched down, and gingerly lifted her head with his fingertip.
"Poppy? Can you hear me?" he muttered with a quivering voice. Miraculously, Poppy's eyes cracked open and she stared up at him with blurred hazel eyes. She gawked at him for a moment before responding with a weak yet happy squeak. Ethan's smile grew when Lilli sprinted into view at the sound of Poppy's voice.
"Poppy, oh Poppy..." she wept while stroking the strange creature's head. Eventually, her eyes closed once again. Lilli turned back to Ethan with tears dripping down her cheeks, and she begged in a broken whisper, "please...save her..."
"There's only one person I know who can help, so we have to hurry. You better hold on, okay?" Ethan took the flashlight into his teeth and lay an open palm down for Lilli, who climbed on without a hint of fear. He then placed her gently in his hoody pocket. Finally, he scooped Poppy up with both hands and cradled her unconscious body in his palms. As he stood, his legs began to pump and he dashed through the forest while trying to make sure both passengers weren't jostled. He could still hear Poppy's whine of pain even with the cold night air rushing past his ears.
Hang on guys, we'll be there soon.
The front door didn't even slam before Ethan heard a yell reverberate off the walls of the living room.
"Good God, Ethan! Do you have any idea how late it is?" Liza stood with her hands cemented her hips. Her lab coat still draped down to her legs.
"I know, I'm sorry sis," Ethan replied between several puffs, "but I'm in the middle of an emergency here."
"What? Why, what's happ-" Liza paused as her little brother thrust his hands before her. At first, she stared at them with one eyebrow raised, but then noticed a small creature curled up in his palms. Fresh scars overspread its body with crimson, and its chest rose and fell with long intervals as it strived for air through the pain. She thought it was a mouse until she noticed the long ears drooped down its skull.
After taking time to quell his gasps, Ethan spoke in a ragged voice. "Please...save her..."
Liza stared at him with a gape. "Ethan, are you serious? I don't even know what it is. Do you?"
Ethan's eyes raced back and forth as though he were looking for something he couldn't find, until he finally replied, "does that really matter right now? Can't you see she's in pain?"
Liza sighed. "I hate to say it Ethan, but it might be too late..."
"No, you have to at least try!"
"Please, Liza? Isn't an injured animal's life worth at least that much?" It was then that Liza locked eyes with Ethan and noticed just how much urgency brewed inside of them. Though she still wanted to ask him questions about this strange creature, she lifted her hands to meet his.
"I'll see what I can do," she complied. Ethan exhaled a sigh of relief through his smile as he gently placed the injured animal in her hands.
"Thank you Liza." She returned the beam before turning around and walking up the stairs to her room, cautious to keep her hands steady.
The second Liza's body left his view, Ethan slipped a hand into his hoodie pocket and laid his palm flat until he felt a light scuttle trace his skin. He then elevated Lilli out into open view until she was on the same level as his chest. For an instant, she stared off towards the staircase, then turned up to Ethan with a red, furrowed expression.
"Do you think Poppy will be make it?" Her voice cracked under the weight of suppressed sorrows. Ethan gulped at the lump in his throat before he responded.
"My sister is the best vet in her office. I have faith that she will be able to save Poppy. All we can do for now is wait and hope. Until then, send Poppy all of your best wishes for her."
"How will that help?"
"Trust me, people are very appreciative when you keep them in your thoughts. And I'm sure Poppy isn't any different." Lilli wiped at her eyes until the creases in her face faded, and she nodded with a sigh. Suddenly, a tiny gurgle rumbled from Lilli's stomach. She quickly wrapped her midsection with both arms. Ethan stared with a questioning smile, "when did you last eat?"
"...It's been a while," she quietly replied.
"Ah, well let's fix up something for you." He carried Lilli with him into the kitchen then set her down on the counter to search through the cupboards. In a matter of time, a small trove of boxes laid before Lilli, all filled to the brim with snacks. Her mouth flooded with saliva as the familiar tastes of each treat awoke in her taste buds. Ethan reached into one of the boxes, grabbed a handful of crackers, and laid them out before her. Before he even said "dig in," Lilli launched toward them and took a mouth-filling bite of the first one she grabbed. Soon, both hands held crackers and she chomped off one mouthful after another.
"It really has been a while," Ethan commented as his gaze remained fixed on the scene. Lilli paused mid-bite to stare up the human, only for her cheeks to slowly turn red. Ethan laughed as he reached for another box and scooped out another handful of food.
Lilli swallowed before commenting, "I can't eat all of that."
"Oh no, this is for Poppy," he replied as he wrapped the snacks in a paper towel. All of a sudden, the gnawing emptiness in Lilli's stomach filled as her stomach clenched. Despite Ethan's words of comfort, how could a human vet care for a creature like Poppy? Liza did not even know what Poppy was; how could she possibly heal her?
"Lilli?" Ethan's voice burst through her thoughts. She twisted her head up to look back with fully opened eyes.
"Are you okay? You stopped eating."
"Oh...yes, I'm fine. Just thinking about Poppy."
"I know you probably would rather forget about it, but can you tell me what happened out in the forest? Poppy could not have ended up like that for any reason at all. You would not allow it." Before she knew it, Lilli's body began to quiver. Despite her attempts to calm herself with deep breaths, no ease came to her. The fear of the memories nestled itself deep within her soul in a place too far for her mind to reach. Despite this deep-seated anxiety, these shadows were not welcome anywhere, and she wanted the phantoms conquered and forever gone.
"Yes...what happened there..."
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to-"
"No, I have to forget it completely. Hopefully telling you about it will help with the process."
So Lilli relayed the entire story, from landing in the forest on the first day up to what happened just before Ethan saved the distressed duo. As he listened, Ethan slowly crouched over the counter with his arms supporting his head. His eyes traced the tile linings as if trying to trace the logic of the tale in his mind. Even once Lilli finished, he remained silent with his confused impressions.
"Why would he not believe you as being one of their own? You obviously are."
Lilli shrugged, "it seems there is more of a system to my people than I thought." Ethan broke his concentration when he heard the despondence in her voice. She now sat with her legs curled into her for support. Her eyes looked out into the open, empty space before her. Ethan remembered, all at once, the day he first saw Lilli. The way her pearly skin and slender frame and each wiry strand of hair made her appear like a doll. But what made him eventually realize the truth were her eyes, vivid and thriving with life. Now, those same eyes became glossy and still, and Ethan wondered whether she was on the verge of tears or if this tiny, living girl actually turned into a puppet.
Suddenly, the ceiling creaked as weight shifted around on the floor above. Both Lilli and Ethan broke from their spells with a jolt. She hopped onto his hand and scurried back into his pocket. Ethan quickly swiped up the rest of the pool of crackers and tossed them back into their box, which was then stuffed back inside the cupboard. Once the kitchen door swung open, Ethan stood before his sister with the same dire expression.
"Well?" he asked impatiently.
"I did the best I could," she paused a moment before a tiny smirk crossed her lips, "and she'll be fine."
A grin broke across Ethan's face as he covered his eyes with his hands as if to dam up any oncoming tears. "Oh thank God...sis, I knew you could do it! You're the best!"
Liza laughed. "I guess having a little brother who believes in me makes all the difference."
"Can I go see her?"
"I suppose, just be very careful. She is very fragile, especially now."
"I will, thanks so much!" He smothered her in a quick hug before marching up the stairs. Liza could only laugh in response, but the laughter faded as she wondered exactly how Ethan came upon the creature.
Ethan slid into his sister's room and up to the desk. Curled up in a makeshift bed of cotton balls and gauze was Poppy, her body decorated with white bandages across her arms, legs, and torso. Her face no longer seemed contorted as she slept peacefully. Ethan carefully reached into his pocket and produced Lilli onto the desktop. Lilli gingerly stepped up to her sleeping friends, ringing her hands all the while.
"Poppy?" she called out in a shaky whisper. Poppy's ear flicked across her face in a moment of dream-filled bliss, but remained motionless otherwise.
"Poppy!" Lilli raised her voice to a more desperate yell. This time, Poppy's eyes blinked open lazily and her head slowly rose, her mind still in a dreamy stupor. She yawned then glanced around, only to halt when her pupils focused on Lilli. The little Takian gave a weak mew as the tip of her tail patted on her cushiony bed. That one cry released a flood of tears from Lilli's eyes, soaking the quaking smile on her lips. In a matter of seconds, Lilli sprinted forward with outstretched arms until she crashed into an embrace with her injured friend.
"Oh Poppy, thank goodness...thank goodness..." Lilli repeated the words in sobbing whispers as the tears soaked Poppy's fur. The tiny animal rubbed her face back in response, though the hug tightened around some of her bandages. Ethan smiled as he turned his head away, allowing the two their reunion without unnecessary eyes watching. Soon enough, Lilli's outburst quelled and she slowly released Poppy from her grip to wipe the tears from her eyes. She looked up with a smile showing through her red and puffy face.
"I thought I had lost you." Poppy's ears folded back as if the mere should never be spoken. Lilli giggled, "That is right. You are here, safe at last."
This statement illuminated Poppy's eyes, and she turned up to Ethan and gave as loud of a yowl as she could produce. Ethan swiveled around in a daze.
"Everything okay?" he asked with sudden worry. Poppy batted down on her pillow. Tentatively, Ethan brought his fingers closer to the tiny creature. Lilli could not help but laugh as she noticed his forefinger shaking the closer he drew. As soon as he halted just before Poppy, she stretched her neck forward and rubbed her head against his skin, even giving him a tiny lick. Ethan laughed softly at her soft touch and the ticklish vibration of her purring.
"You're...welcome, Poppy." His hand retreated, though his thumb rubbed the area where she touched. Among the comfort of being safe and the knowledge that Poppy survived, Lilli suddenly yawned with such force that her body flopped down next to Poppy.
"Lilli! What's wrong?" Lilli flinched at his booming voice, but she understood why Ethan cried out with such fear.
"Just exhausted..." she moaned with a wave of her hand, "do you think we can move Poppy's bed into your room?" Lilli's hair waved under the gust of Ethan's sigh.
"Sure, just hang on." Without opening her eyes, Lilli clenched the cushion as she felt herself being lifted. The odd yet familiar sensation reminded her of the days where she flew on Robin's back, hair billowing behind her as she gazed at the human town below. Now she lay among the human town in the hands of a boy, a place she never thought could be considered a home.
When Ethan placed them down with a slight jolt, Lilli sat up and stared at the human boy. She could no longer help but ask the question pent up within her. "Ethan?"
"Yeah?" he replied as he peeled off his hoodie.
"Why were you there tonight? How is it you were able to save us?" Ethan stayed mute even as he sat to remove his shoes and socks. When he finally responded, he did not look up to face Lilli.
"I told you, that whistle I gave you was meant to help you from any danger you may have encountered. And it did." As the truth dawned on her, Lilli shifted forward on the sheets until she stood before him.
"You mean you intended to save us the entire time?" she asked disbelievingly.
He rubbed his hands over his cheeks as he gave a muffled "yeah."
"But...why? We had that fight, and I said so many terrible things to you. How can you just let that go?"
Ethan finally looked up with surprise. "You're still thinking about that?"
Lilli suddenly felt her face flare, and she turned away from Ethan without answering. She heard the human boy sigh and his bed shift before his voice appeared again. "Lilli, I all ready said I was sorry about what I said. And I still am. You weren't the only one who said horrible things that day. And that's why I had to make it up to you. I hope I earned your forgiveness with this. Did I?"
Lilli froze in place at Ethan's words. She still remembered their fight so clearly, yet he was able to move on from it. All the insults she threw at him now lay in his past, yet remained in her present. And despite everything, he planned from the beginning to help her even when she never asked for it.
"I guess I can take that as a no," Ethan acknowledged dishearteningly, "well, you are more than welcome to stay if you want, but I know you would probably rather leave. So...good night." And with a click, the whole room fell into dark silence. Lilli turned on her heel to face Ethan's horizontal form wrapped in layers of blankets. Slowly, Lilli took even paces forward until she dropped onto his pillow. Even on the sinking softness of the down, she proceeded forward. With each step, warmth flooded her chest though she did not fear whether it brought pain to her heart. Finally, she reached his calm face, his breaths puffed in waves. Without any other means of taking him into her arms, Lilli lay her body across the bridge of his nose. The moment she settled, she felt him move beneath her.
"Lilli?" Ethan whispered, "is everything okay?" Lilli looked up with eyes brimmed with tears to find herself face-to-face with her reflection in Ethan's window-sized eye.
"How can you forgive me?" she asked in a choked whisper, "how can a human like you just forget everything that happened?" Lilli watched as his gigantic eyelid blanketed his eye for a second before retreating once again.
"Maybe you are beginning to see that all humans are not actually monsters." The pang ripped through her chest as her own words stabbed back at their original speaker. She nodded at Ethan's words and lowered her head again with a whimper. Soon enough, she felt a warmth snake its around her body. Without even looking, Lilli knew it was Ethan's fingers; the touch of his hands memorized itself into her own body. Ethan's body began to vibrate beneath her, and she soon realized it was because he began to hum. The relaxing melody entranced Lilli into a state of unconsciousness. As Lilli sank into the pillow, Ethan's voice echoed through her mind in the form of two words: